Edinburgh Fringe digital review: Call Mr Robeson

Tayo Aluko and Friends bring his first play with music to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Just a man, his life, with songs. Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an actor, a singer, a political activist, a professional football player, a civil rights campaigner.

Director Olusola Oyeleye and designer Phil Newman sets Call Mr Robeson amongst flags of countries key to Robeson’s life (USA, Russia, Wales, and the International Brigade of the Spanish Republic).

“Six foot four and 200 graceful pounds of dark devastation”, is how he was described as a teenager. In 1921 he marries his light-skinned sweetheart, Eslanda Goode (you can see them together in the film Borderline).

Trained as a lawyer but pushed out because of racism, he used his huge, rich voice to gain respect from crowds in plays and in concert halls. By 1923 he was immortalised in the defining role of Joe in Show Boat.

Other films were hit and miss. The Ealing Studios film The Proud Valley gave him a lifelong love of the miners and the Welsh. Sanders of the River, meanwhile, was a disappointment, a travesty of native islanders.

Just as in Aluko’s other play at the Fringe, Just An Ordinary Lawyer, Call Mr Robeson benefits from his vocal prowess, this time with piano accompaniment from Michael Conliffe.

Spirituals and showcases from Robeson’s long career punctuate the tale. With a father who escaped slavery at fifteen, and a mother who perished in a house fire when her son was a child, young Robeson looks for understanding in a “non-racial, Socialist country”, notably Russia.

This is a play which is rich in civil rights knowkedge as well as being a loving testament to a great artist who was treated badly by his home country. You may wish to supplement this play with the documentary Here I Stand, which was released in 1999.

You can see Call Mr Robeson live at Surgeons Hall in Edinburgh on 24-28 August, as well as online on-demsnd – book your tickets here.